Sometimes it is easier to hear a whisper than it is to hear a shout.
Denys Arcand's 1989 Jesus of Montreal whispers its message in comparison to the metaphorical and theological shouting that goes on in Mel Gibson's 2004 The Passion of the Christ, and as a result is far more effective. While Gibson's movie is likely to convince his core audience of evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics that the view of the world that they already hold is indeed the correct one, Arcand's movie is likely to get people to revisit their assumptions and even to change the way in which they think about the world. This is one of the distinctions (and indeed perhaps the most important distinction) between art and other kinds of human activity: Art should make us examine our lives. This is something that Arcand's movie accomplishes and something that Gibson's does not.
Both movies are a version of the traditional dramatic form of the passion play, in which actors (often amateurs) reenact moments from Christ's life as a way of reminding themselves as well as those who watch them of the meaning of Christianity. The form was most popular in Europe during the Middle Ages, but it has never died out and - as Gibson's grosses demonstrate - still has significant appeal to many people today.
Arcand plays more directly with the conceit of the passion play, because his movie focuses on a modern-day passion play in which ordinary Canadians stage a passion play, reenacting the stations of the cross. As they present these last scenes from the life of Christ, the distinctions between acting and life become blurred and the actors take on more and more of the qualities of the characters that they depict. Arcand's message is thus an inclusive one: All people (of whatever religion or philosophy) can be transformed by a spirit of grace (from the Christian to the animistic) and become better people.
Gibson's movie is meant to be a realistic enactment not of...